Matthew Halsall takes to the stage in the open-air amphitheatre on a blissful Mediterranean evening. It’s July in the south of France and behind the young trumpeter, whose trademark worker’s cap is pulled over his eyes, the ochre sunset oozes into the sea as fishing boats rock lazily to shore.
Armed with a plastic cup of rosé in hand, conditions are perfect to hear to one of the most pioneering jazz musicians of his generation. Halsall needs little time to float the audience away. His tunes are soulful and spiritual, deep and subtle, yet bob along pleasingly, melodically.
Twenty-three years after first blowing his favoured instrument at the age of six, he has developed a playful and haunting style which has the potency to elevate jazz back in to the public consciousness. After a spellbinding 90 minutes he takes a coy bow and grins. “It’s magical to be here, thanks for listening,” he says before we rise from our stone seats to applaud, feeling privileged to witness such precocious mastery.
After his performance at Worldwide Festival in Sète, near Montpellier, the Manchester-based maestro sips a Dark ‘n’ Stormy and tells us: “That was one of the most special gigs I’ve played. I don’t play that many, so are all important in a way, but that was something else.”
Six-year-old Matthew had decided he wanted to throw all his energy into mastering the trumpet after his parents took him to a jazz gig to watch the big band he would eventually star in, the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. And after realising his calling Halsall found school a struggle – “it was a diversion for me and I got quite irritated and angry” – and became close to veering off the rails.
“I was in with a bad bunch of kids and got in to a lot of trouble. Combined with hanging around with big northerners in a brass band, it was a lethal cocktail.”
His potential was spotted early and following two years in the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, aged 14 he first toured the world with the big band. He was the youngest by five years. “I had to learn how to cope with drinking, and fast,” he says.
However, through music and after moving, at 15, to the Maharishi Free School in west Lancashire, which encouraged meditation and taught Eastern philosophy, he turned his fortunes around. “After going from E and F grades, I actually gained six GCSEs.”
The northerner, who turned 29 in September and is due to release his fourth solo album in mid-October, is also an established DJ and founded his own record label in 2007. Arguably his biggest challenge, however, is making jazz accessible and popular with the current generation of listeners.
After moving to Liverpool to live alone aged 17, Halsall started to mature and studied sound engineering at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. By his mid-20s, now in Manchester, he had cut back on his partying and, as he says, “started to really focus on my production and the creativity side. I felt as though I needed to play music for my generation and the generations just above me. The time was right to make my own jazz music.”
Showing impressive acumen he established Gondwana Records, which he still runs from an office in his house, and did not need to compromise his sound. Calling in favours and the help of his graphic designer brother Daniel, who does all his album artwork, Halsall brought out his debut record, Sending My Love, in 2008. It immediately grabbed the attention, and was soon followed by Colour Yes and On The Go.
His latest release is Fletcher Moss Park (named after the place he spends most of his time composing), and as his star continues its impressive ascent Halsall reveals his “dream goal”. He says: “I want do an amazing album that has solo piano tunes, orchestra tunes, jazz tunes. The task will be trying to make it sound like an album. I want to take my time and put my heart, personality and soul in to it.
“The problem is saying you are a jazz trumpet player to the younger, student generation – it’s probably the kiss of death. Immediately they think of cheesy cabaret-esque quartets who are very self-indulgent. I just have to try and make it as current as possible.”
This youthful talent, in his humble way, has the potential, ambition and backing to scale new heights in the genre, and possibly become one of the standout jazz heroes of his time.
This article first appeared in Crack in October 2012